Saturday, 4 July 2009

3 July 2009

MEXICO CITY -- OK, I admit it, I wasn’t too surprised to find -- in a country battling against powerful and violent drugs cartels -- that there was tight security around the headquarters of the government public prosecutor’s office.

You know the sort of thing: crash barriers to stop car bombs; armed guards in flak jackets to stop armed attackers; airport-style metal detectors and X-ray machines as soon as you get inside the door.

I didn’t even raise an eye-brow when they took my photo, my electronic finger-print and a specimen signature on a digital pad.

But what did stop me in my tracks was when a stern woman in surgical gown and face-mask insisted on spraying my hands with some anti-swine flu stuff before I was allowed any further. Organised crime gangs are bad enough -- but drugs syndicates and swine flu … that’s a lot for any government to handle.

President Felipe Calderón says the future of democracy in Mexico is at stake as his government battles against official corruption and organised crime. But if his right-of-centre National Action Party (PAN) does badly, as expected, in Sunday’s mid-term elections, he’ll find it even more difficult to take effective action to confront the threats to the nation’s survival.

I’ve had a fascinating few days – from the rolling hills of Michoacán to the brash Gulf beach resort of Cancun, I’ve met warm-hearted Mexicans with two over-riding concerns: an economy in free fall and spiralling drugs-related violence.

The statistics tell part of the story: the economy expected to contract by nearly 6 per cent this year; remittances from migrant workers in the US down by nearly 20 per cent; tourism revenues down by 30 per cent. More than 6,000 murders last year; more than 1,000 kidnaps.

But the other part of the story is told by people like Vitoria, the sad-faced straw hat seller I met in Cancun. “Tourists don’t come here any more … they’re too scared.”

Or people like Mineko, third-generation Japanese-Mexican, kidnapped last October outside her stationery shop and held captive for a terrifying three weeks. Or Claudia Wallace, who lives with her husband and three children in their prison-like home, with guards at the front gate 24 hours a day, because she and her family refused to keep quiet when her brother was kidnapped and murdered four years ago. (You can hear her harrowing story on tonight’s programme.)

Why is Mexico in so much trouble? Partly because it lies unhappily squeezed between cocaine growers in Colombia to the south, and cocaine users in the US to the north. Much of Mexico’s violence is the direct result of organised crime gangs battling for control of the trade.

But also partly because Mexico has a hopelessly confused, multi-layered police system, organised at municipal, State and federal level, in which far too many police are badly paid and corrupt.

And also partly because some areas of Mexico still suffer terrifying poverty, which breeds alienated and angry young men who fall prey all too easily to the narcos.

President Calderón has called in the army to help him beat the bandits. It’s a controversial but largely popular strategy. So will it succeed? I’m afraid I have to fall back on that old journalistic cliché: only time will tell. Meanwhile, Mexico, the 13th largest economy in the world, with a population of nearly 110 million, teeters on the brink.

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